Puzzling Out Your Revisions

I did it! I finished my draft! And now . . . ohhh boy, is it a mess.

I’m not talking about awkward sentences and sparse details—though there’s certainly plenty of that. I’m talking about huge plot and character shifts part way through, characters I introduced, then ghosted on, a beloved pet dog that appears in the first chapter only—that kind of a mess.

I have chapters I wrote, then moved, that now need to be rewritten so they’ll make sense within their new context. I have location shifts, missing parents, siblings that I may or may not add in. . . .

Basically, I have a TON of work ahead of me. When I look at everything that needs to be done, it’s overwhelming.

As writers, one of the most prevalent pieces of advice we’re given is to get the words down. Just get them down, finish that draft, worry about the mess later. We can’t revise what isn’t there, right? This is great advice; however, once we’ve followed it . . . what do we do next?

Puzzling

First, take a deep breath.

Then another.

Ok, just one more.

Now that you’ve calmed down a bit, open your document back up.

You might even want to go so far as to print it out so you can physically go at it with a red pen. Or, if you prefer, you can use the comments option in your word processing software program of choice. Do whichever feels easier for you when it comes to wrapping your head around the monumental task ahead.

First, read your manuscript and take notes—any and all thoughts that come to mind—but resist making any changes at this time. (I know, it’s hard.) If you make changes as you go though, you might find later that the changes you made at the beginning still aren’t going to work with the changes you end up needing to make at the end. Think of this as the Intel-Gathering phase. Right now, you’re a detective figuring out what best needs to be done to your story and how best to do it—how to fit the pieces of this messed up puzzle together in a way that makes the most sense.

Ok, so you’ve done that, and . . . you’re still feeling super intimidated, aren’t you? Maybe you should take a few more deep breaths.

Better? Good.

The next thing you need to do is categorize your notes. Just like separating out puzzle pieces into groups—grass pieces over here, sky pieces there, what looks like maybe the hull of a wooden boat? Maybe it’s a house . . . over there. I find organizing and separating the different types of fixes that need to be made in my draft, helps me break things down into more manageable tasks that make the entire process feel less daunting. Rather than go through the manuscript one time, tackling each note one by one, I’ll make multiple passes focusing on one problem at a time.

Big stuff comes first. (It’s ok to take another deep breath here if you need to. Ready? In . . . out . . . good.)

What is it about your draft that needs the most work? For me, it’s usually characterization. For you, it could be setting, or filling in plot holes, or smoothing transitions. Take the biggest task and go through only focusing on that. Trust me, you’ll feel so much better once you get that bit out of the way. Next, move on to the second biggest issue.

And keep on moving down the list this way. I haven’t finished taking notes on my current draft, but I’m guessing my big focus areas for example, in order from messiest to least messy, will end up being characters, setting, plot holes, transitions, dialogue.

Once you’ve finished these big picture tasks, move on to the nitty-gritty things, like grammar, punctuation, varying your sentence structures, and finally, removing unnecessary filler words (like, very, really, that, etc.) and adverbs.

And that’s it! Keep in mind, you might need to go back and adjust areas you’ve previously focused on after you’ve made some later changes, but it should be much easier now. And then, of course, you’ll absolutely need to go through the entire process again once you’ve let your critique partners and/or beta reads get a hold of it. But the hardest part should be over. Congratulations! You’ve now turned your huge, jumbled up, intimidating mess into something you’re actually willing to let people read! The puzzle is now complete.

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File Jan 15, 5 15 03 PM.jpegWhen she’s not writing, revising, or banging her head on the keyboard (it’s all the same, right?), Megan Paasch can be found playing her ukulele (badly), knitting (rarely anymore, unfortunately), or herding two amazing, but rowdy little boys (pretty much constantly) with her husband. A native to the Pacific Northwest, Megan earned her B.A. in History from the University of Washington. (Go Huskies!) Her favorite history subjects were, and still are, Women in History, the Tudors, and the Celts. You can read more about her here.

The Gamification of Writing

Gamification is one of the biggest buzzwords in business today. As defined by the Financial Times:

Gamification is an emerging business practice that refers to the use of digital game design techniques and video game elements to solve non-game problems, such as business and social impact challenges. It is applicable to a number of business areas including human resources, sustainability, innovation and marketing.

To those who are paying attention, it seems like practically everything is being gamified today. Any process that can be tracked and measured, the results ranked and made public, is certain to get this treatment.

A few months ago, my company’s technical support group got gamified. The manager divided the techs into teams and assigned point values to certain types of tickets. The two-week competition got pretty heated as the guys ended up gaming the gamification—trying to win at all costs. In the meantime, they managed to clear out a backlog of lingering support issues. Gamification FTW.

Not everybody likes having their jobs (or their lives) gamified, though. For a good illustration of this, check out the top definition of the term on UrbanDictionary.com:

A cynical practice by corporate douches where workers are supposedly motivated to work even harder on menial, pointless tasks by rewarding them with lame titles, meaningless rankings, coupons or a variety of other real-life trash loot.

I don’t know about you, but I’m guessing someone couldn’t quite make it to the top of his call center’s leaderboard.

TTOF---gamify---badges

Badges? We need some stinkin’ badges!

Regardless of what the critics say, turning an essentially non-competitive activity into a competition can be highly motivating. When I bought my wearable fitness tracker last year, Garmin immediately started awarding me “badges” just for walking around. I got a “5,000 Total Steps” badge on the first day I wore my tracker. They had gamified the very act of walking! Thus encouraged, I found myself ducking out a couple of times each day for a quick jaunt around the block, just to get the extra steps in. Thanks to Garmin’s behavioral conditioning, it only took me until October to get “2 Million Total Steps.” Woo-hoo!

Back on February 25 of this year, I earned Garmin’s “Quadruple Goal” badge for racking up 53,545 steps in a single day. When I bragged a little about that little achievement on social media (with gamification, bragging is practically compulsory) one of my Facebook “friends” actually accused me of cheating. “What did you do, attach your FitBit to a ceiling fan and let it run all day?”

In reply, I posted screenshots from MapMyRun, another gamification app:

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The app measured and showed exactly what I’d done: back-to-back half marathons … like a boss. It was all there in the stats: distance, time, pace, calories burned. My friend’s response to this was, “Oh.”

If you’ve ever participated in NaNoWriMo, you’ve had your writing gamified. I’ve done and won NaNo five years in a row now, and I freely admit I’m addicted to racking up the word counts. There’s nothing like a daily bar graph to encourage you to stay above the trend line. If you have a day when you don’t write as much (or at all), you see the disappointing flat bars. If you have a particularly productive day, the bars soar up. Sure, the motivation might be a little artificial, but it can also be very compelling:

TTOF---gamify---nanowrimo

I worked my tail off last year to hit 75,000 words—my best November ever. Were they all good words? Of course not. But you can’t edit something that’s not drafted, and you can’t trim words that haven’t been written.

As great as NaNoWriMo is, I wish the system provided even more in terms of stats and tracking. I love the fact that I can look at a running log on MapMyRun and see how elevation and fatigue affected my pace. I enjoy challenging myself to go faster on the uphill stretches or to finish strong after a long race—and then seeing my results in the workout log afterward. But NaNoWriMo’s “daily stats” only tracks a project’s progressing word count. I want more gamification, dangit!

This month, since I’m participating in Camp NaNoWriMo while also preparing for a marathon, I thought I might start tracking my writing sessions in a little more detail. Just as MapMyRun records the pacing of each mile, I’m using a spreadsheet to log each of my writing sessions, tracking my start and stop times and my beginning and ending word counts. The sheet calculates the total time, the total words, and the combined words per minute and words per hour.

Camp-NaNoWriMo-Session-Log

Since I generally go somewhere else to write, I’m also making note of where I spent each writing session. I want to know, when the month is over, whether certain locations might be more productive for me. As one of my marketing mentors used to say, “You can’t manage what you don’t measure.” And yet, all these years I’ve never really done much measuring when it comes to the creative process.

So far, what I’m finding is that I’m much more motivated to crank out words when I know the clock is ticking. In other words, the very fact that I’m tracking time and word counts impacts my behavior. (In physics, this is known as the “observer effect,” a phenomenon that’s also observed in quantum mechanics.) I’m also seeing that my level of preparation—essentially, how much I’ve thought about and planned out the day’s chapter(s)—affects my total production as well as my production rate (words per hour). It’s hard to know how to measure that, though.

I know there are those who might shy away from such an overtly nuts-and-bolts approach to the act of creation. To me, though, drafting prose is not about creating art. It’s about generating the raw materials for something that I hope will be compelling, inspiring and artistic. The first draft is the block of marble. The fifth or seventh or twentieth draft is the finished sculpture.

It might sound a little weird, but I figure if there’s anything I can do to streamline the process of pounding out that first draft, I’m willing to to try it. And that includes a little over-the-top gamification.

TTOF---gamify--featured

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David-Profile-PicDavid Baker is an author, playwright, marketing professional, blogger and freelance editor. He has ghost-written several books and authored dozens of published articles on such topics as business technology, the insurance industry, marketing and data security. He writes both YA and “grown-up” fiction and is actively querying several projects. He also edits the monthly journal of a national trade organization. In his spare time, he runs marathons, volunteers with young people, cooks curries, paints shoes and builds things. He has an A.A. in theater, a B.A. in English and an M.A. in linguistics.

Born in Arizona, raised in Hawaii, currently living in Utah, David is actively involved in theater. His stage play, Inside Al, won the Henry Fonda Young Playwright Award and premiered at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, DC. The play was subsequently published by Samuel French and has been in near-continuous production for more than two decades, with hundreds of performances across the US and Canada. You can find his personal blog at blog.bakerdavid.com.

13 Ways to Get OUT of Your Writerly Funk

FUNKSometimes we have a retreat, and we want to write ALLLLLLL the words ALLLLL day, but we get there, and… our brains don’t cooperate.

Sometimes we’re trying to finish a project over several months time, and it’s just not…happening.

 

Here are few tips to help you reset and start writing again:

1. Take a break. I know there are a TON of writers who say you have to write every day. You do not have to write every day. And most importantly, you need to not feel guilty about taking breaks. (If you’re at a retreat, don’t be afraid to step away from the computer for a while).

2. Remember that publishing is not personal. Sometimes passes (the nice way to say rejections) can get you down, but you HAVE to keep in mind that it’s the RIGHT project, in front of the RIGHT person, at the RIGHT time. That’s a lot of things that have to fall into place for a YES. Move forward. Prove them wrong.

3. Sometimes we have this precious chunk of time – a couple hours with a babysitter, or away from work, or at a writing retreat, and the words just aren’t coming. Remember there are a TON of non-writing things you can do to move your MS forward. Character sketches, character and setting pictures, storyboards, use a pacing or plotting tool to set up where your story is going next… Just because you’re not putting WORDS into your story, doesn’t mean you’re not putting WORK into your story.

4. Pick ONE thing you know is coming up in your story, and write that – even if it doesn’t come next, which brings me to…

5. Don’t be afraid to write out of order. Now, if you write the ending early on, chances are you’ll have to redo it when you get there, but it gives you SOMETHING to write. Sometimes writing ANYTHING will lubricate that sticky brain.

6. THEATER EXERCISES! Look up breathing, and characterization exercises. Getting into your character’s head can be a brilliant way to unlock those words, which leads me to…

7. Write something unrelated from your MC’s point of view. Maybe an essay on their thoughts after the end of the novel. Maybe an essay or their thoughts on one of the things you’ve put in your story to torture them.

8. Ask yourself, Did I make this big enough? The plot, the plot points, my main character – will be people be rooting for this to work out? Is there something else I can do?

9. Set the mood: Gum, snacks, drinks, music, smells… Maybe go a step further and pick stuff your MC would like.

10. Prep before your writing time. Try to think ahead…

11. Set a timer – YOU HAVE TO WRITE ANYTHING FOR XX MINUTES, and then you can break.

12. MOVE YOUR BODY. I promise that moving your body, lubricates your mind. Yoga, walking, stretching, running, swimming, biking… Bonus if it’s something your MC would like too 😉

13. DON’T PANIC. Finding yourself in a funk happens to everyone 🙂

HAPPY WRITING!!

~ Jolene

17361785_1313033622107898_5983686946276267719_nJolene Perry writes YA fiction for AW Teen and Simon Pulse. She writes about writing on BEEN WRITING? And you can stalk her on her website HERE. She’s also the vice-chair for the LDStorymakers Conference. YOU SHOULD COME…. Join the Tribe…

 

 

4 Tips for Decluttering Your Manuscript

This week was my Spring Break, and I spent the time getting my affairs in order. Spring is most definitely in the air (at least it is where I live), and decluttering is something I’ve been putting off, but this week I threw open my windows, rolled up my sleeves, and dove in(to my closet).

I also took the opportunity to declutter my WIP, a process that I dreaded but wound up enjoying. (What?)

When revising, you should go through your manuscript and declutter by cutting unnecessary words.  Yes, sometimes those words amount to an entire line. Or a scene. Or a character. Or an entire subplot. Yes, most writers find it painful to cut thousands of words *cries* when we invested so much to get to that high word count. However, a meandering story or pointless dialogue will not engage your readers, and if any of your words do not serve your plot or your characters, they need to go. (For super useful information about when and why you should be ruthless at cutting words, I highly recommend Elaine Vickers’ post on The Reductive Revision.)

declutter

If either your house or your manuscript is beginning to feel like fodder for the producers of  Hoarders, here are four tips on how to declutter your life…I mean, manuscript:

  1. Put things in their place. I always feel better when everything is stored away in its place. There’s no reason to keep all of those hair scrunchies in my writing desk drawer, after all. Laundry, while functional in its basket, could be hung, folded, and put away, I suppose. As applied to writing, I like to organize the work that I have left so I can systematically put everything in its place. Scrivener has a handy feature where you can mark your chapters/scenes as “To Do,” “First Draft,” “Revised Draft,” and so on. I love this feature because I can tell at a glance where I need to be when I’m revising. Just like making a chore list at home (my kids do this, and yes, I also do this for myself), I also leave myself document notes for what I need to change in my drafts. As I complete those tasks, I cross these off one by one, and it’s even more satisfying than putting all of my winter clothes away for the season.
  2. Put things in storage. Not sure if you’ll wear that trendy jacket next year but not ready to get rid of it because you bought it this season? Put it into storage. Likewise, if you’re not sure if you need that scene or dialogue that you cut from chapter three, put it into storage. I save all of my extraneous scenes in a separate section in Scrivener called “Saved for Later” (you could do the same with a separate word processing file). If I do need those words, I know exactly where to find them. Sometimes I resurrect these words, but more often than not, I *gasp* don’t, which brings me to #3.
  3. Throw things away. My storage room in my basement has bins for toys that my kids don’t play with anymore. Occasionally they dig around in them and play with an old favorite, but the ones that are not touched within six months wind up being donated to charity. I also have items stuck away in that storage room that makes it to charity on a semi-regular basis, but a few pieces of this “favorite” junk have made the move with us to multiple houses. Similarly, I admit to carting around those deleted scenes and lines for multiple manuscripts. But here’s the thing: I’ve never used these words. When I’ve tried to insert something that I cut from one manuscript into another or even to a different version of a manuscript, it feels like trying to shove a puzzle piece into a space that doesn’t fit. I have to restructure these words so much that it would have saved me time and emotional energy if I’d just written them from scratch. Holding onto cut words and characters is primarily an emotional decision (in my opinion). If you’re holding onto them from project to project, evaluate whether it’s time to let them go. *clings* *says goodbye*
  4. Take a moment to admire all the things. The best thing about this week is that I’ve rediscovered the floor of my closet. Just kidding. I mean, I did rediscover the floor of my closet, and yes, the carpet is still the same color. But I’ve also rediscovered the joy in my story. It feels strange for me to say this, but I think I have been so focused on fixing my manuscript that I had fallen slightly out of love with my overall writing. Matt Williams posted earlier this week some great ideas on how to add voice to stories, and it inspired me to convert the chapter I’d been working into a .mobi file and drop it onto my Kindle app. As I read it, I was happy with how my changes translated to the page, and I was able to quickly bookmark one or two things that made it onto my to-do list. By decluttering, organizing, and shining up my characters and their scenes, I also have a better view of where they need to go from here. And I have a better appreciation of my writing, too.
  5. Have some chocolate. Technically, I said I would share four tips, but I find that a reward is always appropriate for good work. If you’re not a chocolate fan, choose your reward accordingly. ❤

Do you have any spring cleaning tips for your manuscript (or life)? I’d love it if you could share them in the comments!

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helen2Helen Boswell loved to get lost in the pages of a story from the time she could sound out the words. She credits her dad, an avid fiction reader, with encouraging her to read ALL OF THE BOOKS on his shelves from the time she was a teenager. An author of both paranormal and contemporary romance, she loves to read and write characters that come to life with their beauty, flaws, and all. She is the author of the Mythology trilogy (MYTHOLOGY, THE WICKED, THE ETERNAL), and contemporary romances LOSING ENOUGH and SCARS RUN DEEP (coming soon). You can find out more about her writing life at www.helenboswell.com.

Workflow: Formatting

Welcome to my fifth and final post on workflow. I’ve talked about my general workflow and tool choices as well as my capture, drafting, and revising processes. For me workflow has been something to focus on and refine, not for its own sake, but a task undertaken to increase the transparency of my tools. I really want to focus primarily on the “flow” part of the term.

Ultimately my goal is to not fiddle with the tools or to wonder how the tool works. I want to be able to settle into the writing with as few obstructions as possible. It’s taken me a long time to choose the tools and processes that work the best for me. It’s been a good investment, because I am now comfortable with them, and in all honestly, I don’t think about them much at all except when necessity forces me to use tools and processes that don’t work well with my preferred approach.

come-and-join-the

Markdown

The final step in my workflow is formatting. I’ve mentioned that I write in text documents using a plain text markup formatting syntax called Markdown. The internet is overflowing with descriptions of Markdown and how it works. If you want to know more, I’d suggest you begin here with John Gruber, who started it all. Markdown allows you to designate your desired formatting in the simplest way possible without actually formatting the document. This allows you to format in plain text, which is the smallest, most future-proof and backward-compatible document format there is. Markdown allows anyone to see, at a glance, your intentions. It also allows you to create and share documents that might end up being formatted differently depending on the medium (webpage, blog, print, social media, etc.).

Here’s an example of Markdown syntax. There are also ways to use Markdown or one of its derivatives (MultiMarkdown, for example) to structure tables, footnotes, and the like.

Here’s a more substantial list of Markdown syntax.

Markdown has not been widely adopted

Markdown is really fantastic especially for writing that will appear on the web, but it hasn’t been widely adopted outside of the programming and blogging world. It’s a shame because it’s so easy to use and creates all kinds of consistency in application, even when preparing documents for print. You can even use a Markdown derivative for formatting heavy documents such as screen plays. It’s called Fountain, and I love it.

Markdown’s real power comes from it’s ability to work with different style sheets for different purposes. I have a style sheet for printing early drafts of fiction projects, which uses Courier font, 12 point, 2.0 line spacing, 1 inch margins, page numbering in the upper right hand corner. I like this formatting because it (a) reminds me that the document isn’t even close to done, (b) the monospaced Courier font gives me more red pencil room for revision, and (c) it allows me to visually distinguish early drafts from later ones.

I also have a style sheet for final drafts that really fits itself for use in Microsoft word. That style sheet uses Georgia, 11 point, 1.5 line spacing, 1 inch margins, clearly identifiably section breaks, and running headers with the work’s title, my name, and the page number. All of this is designed to make it easy for my agent to work with, handle, and share the document. If he was a Markdown user, this would be a different kind of article. But, alas, Word is the industry standard, and I have come to the realization that it’s less trouble to make my workflow and formatting as “empathetic” as possible. As I have mentioned before, the new Word for Mac and iOS is really quite good and it’s less trouble for me to use Word comfortably, which has made my life a lot easier.

Empathetic Formatting

For a long time, especially in graduate school, I was the main typesetter, designer, and production editor for a string of literary journals. This meant I spent a lot of time taking in and processing other people’s documents, almost all of them done in Word, and almost all of them chock full of strange and vexing formatting. Double spaces after periods, all kinds of tabs, four spaces then a “hard return,” all sorts of junk formatting that didn’t match the style sheet and specifications of our publication. Even when we’d send along a style sheet the formatting would come to us done however the writer wanted it formatted.

This is where I came up with the term “empathetic formatting.” I realized that what designers and typesetters wanted was the least amount of specialized formatting possible. They would be using pre-established house styles for all the document elements, which they would apply as paragraph or character elements. It would be easiest to strip all formatting from a document, which would cause its own set of problems because that would erase all of the formatting. I was doing most of this work before the advent of Markdown, but even if we would have had it then, I think it would have been very difficult to re-train writers to use it.

As a writer, you should go through your final drafts and use the Find/Replace function to look for extra spaces, tabs, and returns. It’s a small way to make the design people happy, and they are good people to keep happy.

What I do now when I have to work with the writing of other people is convert their .docx files to text files formatted with Markdown. I have a number of tools that help me with that conversion. I work with those documents this way, and then place the writing into the design software, webpage, or blog directly. It is hugely more efficient. The writer gets to do what they are comfortable with, and I get to work in a way that makes sense and is the most efficient for my workflow. Empathetic formatting leads to empathetic workflows.

Empathetic Workflows

In the end, the font you choose, the line spacing, and all of that is really a matter of personal preference until you have to start working with others. At this point, I think it’s the responsibility of writers to be as flexible and neutral as possible. For this blog post, I write in Ulysses, using a modified form of Markdown devised by the Ulysses developers, I export the document when I’m done as a Word .docx file with links and images embedded, then email it in. It only took a couple of emails to learn what Thinking Through Our Fingers wanted and needed and only a couple of extra steps to get the document to them in that format.

Your ability to be flexible and neutral in your final formatting really depends on your facility with your tools and the other tools people might be using. You need to know enough about your own workflow to ask good questions about the workflows of others. Once you have become empathetic and flexible, you’ll find that the business end of writing (editing, proofreading, redlining proofs, etc.) becomes a lot less stressful. You’ll be able to focus on the real creativity, because the necessary evils of formatting kind of take care of themselves.
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Todd Robert Petersen is the author of LONG AFTER DARK  and RIFT. Originally a YMCA camp counselor from Portland, Oregon, Todd now directs Southern Utah University’s project-based learning program. You can find him online at toddpetersen.org and @toddpetersen for tweets and Instagrams.

Sharpening Your Focus

Life gets crazy. It’s not uncommon for me to go several days without having time to write. And then, when I do sit down with plans to churn out several thousand words, I find myself unable to concentrate. My attention wanders all over the place, because I’m out of practice.

Concentration is a skill that can be developed and improved over time. I’ve tried most of the usual techniques, with varying degrees of success.

sharpening-your-focus

Eliminating Distractions

These are commonsense, quick-fix steps, such as finding a quiet place to work, turning off the wi-fi, hiring a babysitter, or clearing your desk of clutter. In theory, they all sound perfectly logical. In reality, I’ve been known to find all new distractions to steal my attention. Suddenly the furniture needs dusting, or the books on the shelf need to be reorganized by color.

Taking Breaks

Take a brisk, ten-minute walk. Vacuum the living room. Start a load of laundry. All valid and reasonable ways to get the blood flowing and reset your wandering mind. But I find that if I get up from the computer, even for five minutes, once I sit down again (if at all) it takes me another half hour to settle back into work mode.

Meditating

This is an ideal way to clear your mind. It works for me every time. Puts me right to sleep.

If the most obvious solutions aren’t working for you, consider this: the four most common obstacles to a productive work environment are boredom, stress, lack of sleep, and hunger. The trick is to know yourself and your patterns, so you can initiate proactive prevention. If you get the munchies while you write, keep snacks close at hand. (Although I’ve found that the best snack for keeping me on task—peanut M&Ms—is also the absolute worst thing for my waistline.) Getting enough sleep the night before is important, but not always possible. Try a 20-minute power nap, if you can squeeze one in. And music is an excellent way to fight boredom, as long as you choose something that inspires you without disrupting your concentration.

Stress, I believe, is a more complicated problem. Maybe your mind is spinning and you can’t seem to let go of your worries. Or, in the opposite extreme, your mind is blank, the screen is blank, and you can’t think of a single thing to type. Engaging with another human being is often the best way to snap out of both scenarios. Send a text to your spouse or email a writing buddy, just to get your concerns out in the open. Even if they don’t respond right away, you have freed up space in your overactive imagination for more creative pursuits.

For another perspective on how to increase concentration, I went looking for research-based articles that explore less conventional techniques. According to the Wall Street Journal, for example, doodling can actually help boost memory and creativity.

Don’t you love the idea of doodling away distraction? I plan to give it a try this week, lack of artistic talent notwithstanding.

And the Atlantic has a fantastic article from 2013 about how certain “brain-training games” can improve cognitive function and fight the natural effects of aging on mental engagement.

Even crossword puzzles and memorization games can sharpen your focus. Maybe all those hours I spend playing Scramble with Friends aren’t a waste of time, after all!

Whether we like it or not, the ability to focus for long-ish periods of time is an essential skill for writers. Finding the best way to improve your attention span may require some trial and error, but the increase in productivity is well worth the effort.
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Growing up, Christine Hayes loved reading stories about creatures that curl your toes and legends that send a shiver down your spine. Now she loves writing about them, too. Her debut novel, MOTHMAN’S CURSE, was released in June 2015 through Roaring Brook Press/Macmillan. Christine seeks inspiration by haunting flea markets and estate sales, searching for cool vintage finds with a story to tell. While earning her degree in music she visited Asia for the first time, and later moved there with her family for several years. She has been addicted to travel ever since. Christine and her clan now live in northern Utah. Find her online at www.christinehayesbooks.com.

Focus

I have a slight (okay, huge) problem with staying focused on tasks that I don’t want to do. Sometimes it’s because I find a task boring–like housework. Or it’s repetitive, or I don’t see the point, or . . . I love it, and I find it interesting, and I want to do it, buuuuuuuut it’s hard.

Writing, you guys. Writing is hard. I love writing, but it’s hard. So hard. It is, I might even  go so far as to say, quite difficult.

Whenever I get stuck for words, or I’m not quite sure how I want to go about writing the next scene, that’s it, my brain’s like “this is HARD,” and I’m off clicking on social media, checking my texts, getting up to grab a snack I don’t need, etc. But I’ve been trying a few things to help with this problem, and I thought I’d share them with you in case you have a similar issue.

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1. Meditation

Meditation is basically just training your brain to focus, and you don’t have to do it for very long each day. I’ve been using an app called Headspace to help me out. It does require a subscription to be able to use all of it, but the Take-Ten (10 minute) beginner/training sessions are free. There are also other apps out there–a quick search in your app store will bring up many. But you don’t even need an app for the basics. Just find a quiet, comfortable spot (sitting, preferably, so you don’t get too relaxed and fall asleep) and focus on your breathing. Count your breaths in your head, if that helps. And whenever you notice that your mind is wandering (and it will), just gently acknowledge that and bring it back to focus on your breaths again. I try to do this before I sit down to write, and it really helps a lot.

2. Physical Activity

Again, it doesn’t take much. A brisk walk or some yoga, or even just dropping to the floor and doing a few pushups can help get the blood flowing to your brain and increase your ability to concentrate. I will often do some stretches or pushups between writing sprints.

3. Less Caffeine

Wait . . . WHAT?!

Yes, I know. I’m a writer. Don’t writer’s practically bleed caffeine? I used to, but I just can’t do it anymore. Too much caffeine sends my brain into hyper drive, and makes it more difficult for me to reign it in. I do need some in the morning, however, to jumpstart my day. so I’ve started making my morning cup with one scoop of caffeinated grounds, and one scoop of decaf. That combo is perfect for me. You might need to do some adjusting to figure out the right balance for you.

4. Set up a Permanent Writing Space

. . . and be consistent about writing there. I’ve had a writing desk set up for quite a while, actually, but the couch is so comfy, you know? And so, until recently, I rarely ever wrote at my desk, preferring my laptop, a cozy blanket, and my sofa. It’s no wonder writing often made me sleepy. As soon as I lost focus, I’d often opt for a nap (and no, this has nothing to do with the reduction in caffeine–couches just make me want to nap no matter what, so don’t even go there.) Not only that, but the living room is where we watch TV and play games, and mine’s connected to an open kitchen where I can see all the dishes that are piling up, not to mention mail and papers and . . . you see what I’m getting at? It’s distracting because it’s associated with many different things, and they’re all competing for my attention.  My writing desk, however, is tucked away in this weird little nook in the hallway that the builders thought needed to be there for some reason, and it’s away from the chaos of the rest of the house. Everything on and around my desk reminds me either of my writing, or the things that have inspired my writing (like my T.A.R.D.I.S. and my Mulder and Scully Pop figurines.) If I consistently choose to write at my desk, my brain will associate that spot with writing only. And so far, it’s working really well.

So those are the main things that have helped me focus and stay on task as a writer. I hope you find them helpful too, and if you happen to have any other tips, I’d love it if you’d share them in the comments.

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File Jan 15, 5 15 03 PM.jpegWhen she’s not writing, revising, or banging her head on the keyboard (it’s all the same, right?), Megan Paasch can be found playing her ukulele (badly), knitting (rarely anymore, unfortunately), or herding two amazing, but rowdy little boys (pretty much constantly) with her husband. A native to the Pacific Northwest, Megan earned her B.A. in History from the University of Washington. (Go Huskies!) Her favorite history subjects were, and still are, Women in History, the Tudors, and the Celts. You can read more about her here.